Fear Appeal in Advertising: Is It Effective?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ca$hvertising" by Drew Eric Whitman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is fear appeal advertising? Is it an effective advertising technique?

In Ca$hvertising, Drew Whitman offers insider tricks on how to craft the most compelling, money-generating ads for your business. He argues that most advertisers don’t recognize that their ads must address core human needs, including avoiding fear or threats, to gain the attention of consumers.

Keep reading to learn why a fear appeal in advertising is effective, according to Whitman.

Fear Appeal Advertising, According to Whitman

According to Drew Whitman’s book Ca$hvertising, one of the best ways to sell a product is to provoke a fear in your audience that your product can eradicate. People are strongly motivated to avoid things they fear, and if your product can help them do that, they’ll want to buy it. To use fear appeal advertising, Whitman suggests you consider fears such as: the fear of loss, fear for your health, fear of damage to your ego and self-esteem, and so on. 

Further, Whitman claims that to use fear appeal in advertising, ensure it meets all of the following criteria:

  • The fear is real, common, and palpable to the audience
  • The ad proposes a way to overcome the threat that creates the fear
  • The audience feels the proposed way to overcome the threat is effective
  • The audience believes it can take the action to overcome the threat
How Much Is the Right Amount Fear?

Other marketing experts feel you must use fear appeal in advertising only in moderation. In Building a Storybrand, Donald Miller contends that evoking fear too often or too strongly paralyzes customers or turns them off from your brand. Whitman brings up this point in his book, as well, but generally seems to feel that as long as you’re not distasteful or evoke gruesome fears, you can use this tactic frequently. 

Miller’s approach to building fear in an ad is also slightly different from Whitman’s: While Whitman proposes four criteria the ad must meet to effectively use fear, Miller proposes a four-step process to build fear gently. It seems that for Whitman, how you build fear is less important than the fear being perceived as real and the customer perceiving your solution as viable. 

For Miller, on the other hand, it’s critical that you guide the reader through a story about the threat: This, for him, is the most convincing way to sell a product. 

For instance, an ad for child car seats could raise the possibility of a child being injured in an accident (a real and palpable parental fear). The ad would then propose a new, ultra-safe car seat (a way to overcome the threat of injury) and explain exactly how it’s superior to other car seats (showing how it’s an effective way to avoid injury). Finally, the ad would explain how the customer can easily purchase this car seat and install it (showing how to take action). 

Why Address Human Needs in Advertising?

According to Whitman, before you create any form of advertisement, you must understand the fundamental rule of advertising: Your ads must address the eight core needs that motivate all humans (what Whitman calls the Life-Force 8 in his book Ca$hvertising). These desires are biologically programmed into us, and all humans have them until they die. Therefore, if you’re planning on using fear appeal advertising or any other type of advertising that addresses a human need, it will always draw the attention of audiences. These needs are:

  • Stay alive, live longer, and live a happier life
  • Eat and drink well
  • Avoid fear and threats to your life
  • Find a sexual partner
  • Live safely and comfortably
  • Match or exceed your peers in status
  • Take care of your near and dear
  • Be accepted by society
Why Addressing the Eight Core Human Needs in Advertising Is so Important

Others agree with Whitman on the importance of advertising addressing the eight core human needs and add additional context on why ads must do this. In Building a Storybrand, Donald Miller asserts that the human brain, by design, overlooks any information that doesn’t help it either survive or thrive. This means that any marketing that doesn’t directly address one or several of the eight core human needs is doomed to be seen as useless and ignored by readers. 

In his book, Miller also lists the several survival needs that all ads must address but presents these differently. Miller hews more closely to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, upon which both his and Whitman’s lists of human needs are based: He writes that we need nourishment, security, relationships, and spiritual meaning. Whitman, on the other hand, has broken those needs into smaller needs that are more actionable in advertising—for instance, it’s easier to show how your soda helps the reader “eat and drink well” than it is to show the reader how your soda “provides them with nourishment.” Still, both lists are essentially the same, just presented differently. 

By tailoring your ads to address the eight core human needs, you also reduce the amount of work you need to do to convince your audience to buy: If you’re addressing a basic human fear, for example, when using fear appeal in advertising, then the reason to buy will be obvious and compelling to any consumer. 

(Shortform note: Throughout his Ca$hvertising book, Whitman doesn’t explicitly connect his techniques to these eight core human needs. Indeed, it can be difficult to see how some techniques address any of the eight core human needs. We might consider that, while the connection to the eight core human needs may not be surface-level, the connection is implied in the technique. So, for example, when using fear appeal in advertising, you might focus on what would happen if the consumer didn’t purchase your product—the fear of inaction—such as when promoting health foods or supplements, which is a common tactic in fear appeal advertising.) 

Fear Appeal in Advertising: Is It Effective?

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  • How to turn your mediocre ads into money-making machines
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  • Why fear is a strong motivator that increases sales

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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